There have been only rare instances in my life that have moved me to tears, challenged the very meaning of my existence and begged the kind of questions that everyone can answer and only few choose to. I had one of those experiences a few weeks ago, doing homeless outreach with the Metro Atlanta Singles Ministry, not just making sandwiches to send them to a places you'd rather not think about, but actually going to the places that they lives, the areas under bridges that they make to look like villages. And while most people would consider something like this a high priority on a do-gooder checklist, if you look deep into the lives of the people that you are serving, and if you are honest, you see that they are not much different from you and I. And how, you may ask, can someone who lacks material possessions and shelter be just like you and I? I'll give you a hint, it's not because they are human.....No, it's because there is only one thing separating us all...safety nets.
I've spent a great deal of my life clinging to the safety nets of family, friends, education, faith. No matter how hard I fall or far back I slip, at least one of those nets catches me, in the nick of time. And what would I do in the absence of those? I have no clue. But I do know that survival and sanity would look very different for me. Because often times, the absence or loss of one safety net leads to the loss of another. When we loose the security of family, we are often unable to pursue the education that would help us hold onto the jobs that will keep us safe from unemployment and therefore sheltered from the reality of homelessness. It can all seem like a rapid downward spiral. But it is all too real in the times that we are living in. So why try to act as if we are so removed from those who are homeless? Ah, therein lies the invisible safety net of pride and entitlement, the dilusionary safety nets that say to you "You are where you are and not where they are because you work harder and have made better choices with your life." It almost to say that life is fair. And surely you wouldn't say that, would you? Because you and I both know that this perception completely ignores the choices that are made for you and the ones that you never have the opportunity to make.
I've done homeless outreach before while in school in Greensboro, NC, while resting on the safety net of the pursuit of a college education. And while I attempted to connect with the people that I was serving, there was still a palpable distance. An inner thought which said to me, "this wont ever be you, you are in college making something of your life." But now, only a few years later, I'm out of college, STILL trying to make something of my life, living with my family, with no insurance. It's by no means a miserable existence, but those are the facts. It's now my reality that I am living on threads of what I once considered safety nets. One hospital bill could put me in the poor house. And one split-second decision by my parents to set me out to sea and I'm outdoors. And once I caught a glimpse of that reality, a reality that not even entitlement or pride could shield me from, it didn't seem so strange to pray with a man who was out on the streets because he had no family to take him in and was tormented by fear night after night. It always seems to me that the have nots are so much stronger in spirit and faith than the haves. Like one of my fellow volunteers commented, "To be out on the streets, to have nothing, and to be seemingly forgotten and to still believe that there's a God takes a stronger faith and a stronger spirit that I can even fathom." And through all of this Ive learned that The true ministry element in outreach is to realize how much like you the people that you are serving are. To recognize, that while you and I appear to have such as firm grasp on the nets that keep us safe, our existence is really quite fragile, built upon the blessings and mercy of something so much higher than us. But at any moment, in the absence of one or two elements, it could all crumble.... like a house of cards.